“Wealth can be a suffocating thing...”
...While you and I probably wouldn’t mind a little extra money in our pockets, for the characters of director David Verbeek’s Dead and Beautiful, it’s cold hard cash that keeps them in a lonely world separate from the rest of us, where the only thing worse than death is being ordinary.
Written by Verbeek and Hugh Travers, Dead and Beautiful is set in China and follows Lulu (Aviis Zhong) and her spoiled rich friends, Mason (Gijs Blom), Alexander (Yen Tsao), Anastasia (Anna Marchenko) and Bin-ray (Phillip Juan). All have become so bored with their lives, that on each meeting, they pull tricks to spice things up (going as far as to fake their own death). So when the group wakes up after a strange ritual and finds themselves with vampire teeth and a craving for blood, they attempt to figure out if they're truly vampires or not, all while discovering who they really are (and aren’t) deep down.
Now, when I say rich kids, I don’t mean wealthy. I mean rich. Dead and Beautiful goes so far as to take a moment to let us in on just how many billions each kid’s family is worth. “We don’t live in the same world as you,” says Anastasia at one point, and it’s true. If you or I thought we became a vampire, we’d be hiding out in the woods or sitting in our cheap basement watching Fright Night. These kids though? They call Alexander’s private helicopter to take them to a skyscraper his family owns until they figure things out. A private helicopter. To his private skyscraper.
The point I’m getting at is some of you are going to take one look at the woe is me approach of Dead and Beautiful and ideas like “suffocating wealth” and roll your eyes so far back into your head they fall down your throat. But that’s the point. We’re not supposed to relate to these kids, not really, which makes Dead and Beautiful a curious character study into just how sad and pathetic the wealthy can be.
Throughout an opening act that establishes how extravagant Lulu and her friend’s lives are, Verbeek and cinematographer Jasper Wolf treat the viewer to rich, colorful visuals that scream a world of style over substance. Fast cars. Expensive food. And some seriously drop-dead gorgeous wardrobe. Dead and Beautiful is sexy, hip and a little bit horny, with a hot cast to match. Lulu and co are also a bunch of hypocrites, as we see early on when Mason claims he wants to be a Buddhist, then immediately proceeds to beat up another group at the lounge they’re at because it’s supposed to be “private”. A violent act which everyone else enjoys, and which Lulu even claps to.
These aren’t likeable characters, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. Dead and Beautiful combines elements of films such as Romero’s Martin, in the sense that this is more psychological horror where these kids may or may not actually be vampires, becoming more a journey of self-discovery that simultaneously reveals just how boring and awful they all really are. To an outsider like you or I, Lulu and her friends lead an exciting life full of wonder. But for them, it’s left them feeling hollow and craving a change, even if that means becoming undead.
In some ways, they’re you’re typical gloomy, brooding vampires before they even become vamps.
This allows the filmmakers to have some fun with the idea of vampirism, because unlike Brad Pitt crying over the gift of immortality in Interview with the Vampire, these kids are emphatic over the idea. Some of Dead and Beautiful’s best moments are in the toothy laughs that come with watching as the kids test their resilience to daylight, whether or not they have special powers like mind control, and of course, the effects of drinking blood. It’s a unique approach to the vampire myth that we don’t see all that often. The genre typically explores the initial wonder in new vampiric abilities, but in Dead and Beautiful, these kids are desperate for their newfound vampirism to be real. They’re not trying to find a cure. They’re living it up and ironically feeling alive for the first time in a long time.
I swear, you give kids just one sip of blood…!
At the heart of that endearing irony and humor at the expense of these kids’ naivety, Dead and Beautiful is a melancholic dissection of the empty. Rutger Reinders moody score guides us through long scenes of conflict within the film’s cast as they struggle with what their vampirism reveals about each other. Dead and Beautiful is thematically sharp in that regard, but it lacks any real bite.
It's also relatively bloodless, which feels like a no no for vampire horror.
Aside from moving at the pace of a blood drip, the motivations driving the premise are almost as shallow as the characters themselves, which threatens to send the whole thing bursting into dust once some light is shed on their predicament. Movies are supposed to challenge us with characters we don’t agree with, but that only ever works when we can understand the why, and in Dead and Beautiful, understanding is hard to come by. The entire cast brings a certain amount of humanity to characters otherwise lacking in it, but that’s not enough for the film to ever have the kind of impact it intends to.
Dead and Beautiful is a case where everything is working except for the very premise itself. For all of Verbeek’s engaging style, stunning locations/production design and a cast that’s up to the task, Dead and Beautiful stakes itself in the heart with a premise that doesn’t feel fully…fleshed out? Bled out? Either way, Dead and Beautiful is toothless vampire horror that offers intriguing philosophical ideas surrounding the emptiness of the vain, yet fails to cast much of a reflection once the credits roll.
Dead and Beautiful comes to Shudder on November 4th.
By Matt Konopka